Control Your “Startle Response” (The DIY Lobotomy)

We humans become totally stupid – inducing a “do it yourself lobotomy”-  when we experience threat or panic.  We all have “choked” during a test or performance and perhaps even experienced “startle” in an airplane. We suddenly become a passenger and not a pilot-in-command. Here are some proven techniques to control this natural phenomenon and increase your safety in flight. You’ll do better on your flight test and be ready if you encounter stress in flight (that never happens!)

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This physiological response to threat is a 200,000-year-old evolved reaction that puts our body in a streamlined binary mode to survive a terrestrial emergency; run! When a saber tooth tiger attacks there is no need for a nuanced analysis of the color of their spots. To survive we need to trim down superfluous brain functions and flee. That ancient software runs in our brains when we experience panic in a plane; we get stupid. We “choke” and lose all useful brainpower.  For pilots, this inappropriate adaptation causes “startle” and often precedes the serious, and often fatal, loss of control accidents. The important point is that this natural response to startle or panic is controllable and to some degree reversible, with training.

And though panic in its extreme form of “startle” can cause Loss of Control, there are many lesser levels of anxiety and partial incapacitation that are disabling and hinder performance. At this lesser intensity, pilots experience diminished cognitive capability and make bad decisions. I see a nascent form of this panic as a flight instructor – or especially as a DPE. The joke is that every applicant is *already* experiencing an emergency when they come for a flight test.  Extreme nervousness causes confusion and physical symptoms like rapid breathing and loss of color. These pilots have reached the edge of their capabilities and need a coping strategy. Nervousness and panic in a plane will cause immediate performance deterioration and often pilots defer control to the CFI or DPE (if there is one). Fortunately, there are proven methods to neutralize nervousness; skill-building and “self-calming” are two useful strategies available to all pilots.

Skill-building is a way to “move the goalposts” by providing ever-increasing ability through training. This method tries to ensure that the demands of a task will never exceed the capability of the pilot. Deeper (and current) training in exotic flight configurations is an attempt to inoculate the pilot from LOC-I. This is represented by the Upset Prevention and Recovery Training courses. They take a pilot into the dark corners of the flight envelope and train appropriate responses and develop some level of familiarity. Unfortunately, there is always a limit to this solution in extreme circumstances.

Another solution is mastering physiological control methods (self-calming) to control the panic response. Have you ever noticed Olympic athletes breathing and focusing before their performances? Because our capabilities diminish rapidly with panic and nervousness, optimal performance requires overcoming the ancient physiological responses in the body to stress. I personally teach any pilot who expresses an interest some simple and effective “self-calming.” This involves controlled rhythmic breathing (“relaxation response“) and a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy (positive self-talk). These techniques increase a pilot’s tolerance by teaching recognition and control of the stress and impending panic. Within limits this allows a pilot to maintain or re-establish control of themselves and the plane in a high-stress situation or startle occurrence.

Once a pilot is (literally) breathing again, they potentially can start “thinking through” the disabling challenges they face and resolve the threat (within reasonable limits). One thing is for sure, every pilot *will* at some point “get nervous” and approach panic in their flying career; self-calming is an important tool. At the deepest level, our physiology drives these emotional reactions. Either “choking” during an evaluation or performance or “startle” in flying can create real problems; we are not functioning optinally. “Self-calming” techniques are highly useful in public life too. Here is an interesting video to get you started on emotional control. All these strategies hinge on the “relaxation response” and are based on the polyvagal theory. (Deeper analysis here)

Employing skill-building and calming together has the synergistic effect of improving pilot confidence and capability while simultaneously reducing stress and anxiety. This is an inoculation for every pilot from LOC-I. Frequent and challenging training (SAFE Extended Envelope Training) builds more confident pilots with a greater margin from startle and panic. Fly safely (and often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

Ace Your Oral (for Student and CFI)

The easiest pathway to success on the oral portion of any check ride is to first thoroughly read and understand the FAA standard for certification. These are FREE online and fairly succinct. These standards represent the FAA required “rules of engagement” that your DPE must follow by regulation (check out this FAA guidance intended for DPEs for a peek behind the curtain). CFI and student should both know this document before even starting training but it becomes essential to understand in detail approaching the test. Unfortunately, this document is often missed and many applicants come totally unprepared; “that’s on the test?”

Many test applicants believe that FAA examiners can make up their own subjects/questions or use some commercially prepared test guide. (I recently had one applicant who was righteously wounded because I did not use the oral prep book for the test) Step one in preparation is thoroughly studying the correct book – the FAA ACS – and use this standard to decode and prepare for every area of operation and element. Carefully reading this and outlining the basic regs and requirements that create these standards will make your oral easy.

Step two requires a solid basis of knowledge to work from. A good ground school is necessary to become a solid, safe pilot and pass any flight test. A few “How to YouTubes” are not going to save you on an FAA oral. If you missed the ground school or only did a knowledge test prep, the Gleim Practical Test study guide provides a thorough outline format for preparation with knowledge components for each A/O and element. Either way, take the information from your studies (hopefully the PHAK and AFM)  and apply these to each A/O and element in the ACS. The FAA books are the listed references in the ACS (Gleim and others curriculums get their information from these primary sources) Familiarity with this core information will make your evaluation an easy discussion rather than a suffering slog. I know this sounds intensive but this thorough preparation is an investment for the rest of your piloting career. All future flying depends on the private level preparation and every A/O and element mastered here will merely be elaborated more deeply during your advanced training.

Step three requires actually discussing and verbalizing all this material with someone; hopefully your CFI but potentially even a pilot friend. Just quietly studying “in your head” is not enough. It is vital to actually talk through the subject matter and hear yourself say all the answers. I have seen absolutely brilliant people thoroughly self-study and “know it all” internally, but choke on test day. Something about the stress and also the unique verbal experience will cause them to lock up and lose focus. As soon as they experience a few variations and surprises from scenarios and context it destroys their confidence. To build this confidence, it is essential to discuss and probe the subjects verbally with someone else. Also, you cannot really surprise yourself while studying, and you can’t always know what you don’t know.

Step four is to discover and improve your weak areas especially those on the knowledge test. It is required that the DPE review the missed knowledge test questions). Work harder on these to attain proficiency and outline them in extra depth. Though no oral evaluation is “failed” for one misstep or bobbled answer, a pattern of ignorance or many weak areas leads to a “pink slip.” For initial CFIs, this list from the ORL FSDO has some popular “common weak errors” on the oral.

Step five is almost the opposite of steps three and four. Instead of a hot focus on the specific problem areas, step five requires a wider focusing on the whole planned trip assigned by the examiner. Assemble all the pieces together into the bigger picture. Comprehensively “chair fly” the whole assigned cross-country and analyze your risks and mitigation strategies according to the P-A-V-E checklist. Per the ACS, judgment and risk management are critical pilot skills. A risk mitigation plan is required by the ACS. One good technique that adds your study items into the bigger picture, is to compare your own personal minimums against the FAA regulatory minimums (as in scary low 1 sm clear of clouds) and explain your margin of safety.P-A-V-E All FAA testing is at the level of application and correlation (describe and explain). You need to demonstrate a comfortable command of the information and rote recitation is not sufficient.

Step six requires allowing enough time to take a day off before the scheduled evaluation and just organize all your documents and endorsements for the evaluation so your initial part meeting and “qualification” goes smoothly. First impressions count and you need to be organized and well-rested with a fully-functioning brain to do well. Use the list in the ACS and check each item (asking your CFI if you have any doubts). Double-check your endorsements (AC 61.65H) and remember every initial test needs a 61.39 signoff and all retests need a 61.49 version. Every CFI should have the SAFE CFI Toolkit App to make this easy and efficient.

These strategies are not just for test-taking are also valuable for analyzing any future flight operation: know the big picture, gather data and study/analyze the background; examine the components, rehearse and elaborate, then allow time to practice employing a changing focus from micro to macro. Finally, find and mitigate the risks and develop alternate plans. Fly safely out there (and often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

“Overlearning” Defeats the Startle Effect!

Intuitively, savvy educators know any skill achievement or learning progress, though gratifying, is very perishable. Especially in a high-stakes environment like aviation, deep learning, with consistency and reinforcement is essential. The impatient “got it and move on” attitude does not serve us well for enduring success and safety. We know from recent neurological research that “over-learning” more deeply embeds skills into our preconscious so these skills are available in times of stress and cognitive unavailability (panic). The implications for all learning are many, but for LOC-I deep practice prevents the “startle response” often central in these tragic accidents.  Recent deep practice at the edges of the flight envelope is essential to stay safe as aviators.

Neuroscience is just starting to understand the details of this learning process. You may have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. We humans utilize largely parallel processors for understanding and controlling our world; one thoughtful and slow and one rapid and reactive (built on habits, previous experience, and heuristics).  The majority of our daily activities are handled automatically according to stereotyped reliable frames-of-reference. The usual example – driving home and passing the convenience store (I meant to stop at) is a phenomenon we are all familiar with. Typing fluidly on a keyboard, but unable to list the keys from left to right, is another. Pushing deeper, in times of severe stress (as in an aviation upset occurrence) our brain reaches down to the level of our last recent training to react correctly (or not). Sudden upset is not a time to “pause and ponder” but requires an immediate and correct response. This is where “over-learning” is essential.  We must practice often to have a proven technique available “on automatic” to avoid a startle and panic response.

The first system can be considered fast thinking. It is thinking done almost automatically or instinctively.- The second system is slow thinking.It involves thinking that is more complex and more mentally draining. It takes concentration and agency of the person to process the thoughts

Once we have successfully accomplished any new behavioral repertoire, it is neurologically essential to “stabilize” it by continued training well past the point of simple proficiency; “got it and onward” is not enough. Scientists call this technique “overlearning” and have observed it in every field where human skill mastery is critical; from first violin to martial arts. A recent study reveals that “overlearning” reinforces a skill and embeds it in a different part of the brain, installing it chemically in an entirely different way so it will not be overwritten by new learning. Critical piloting skills must be impervious to forgetting (and this is also why the initial imprint must be accurate) and fluidly available. This new study shows that if you stop training a skill as soon as it is first successful, the brain stays in its “ready-to-learn state” and the new skill is highly perishable. Reinforcement changes your actual brain state and chemistry. The study shows that repetitive training beyond the point of proficiency will “hyperstabilize” the skill and prevents”retrograde interference” from newer inputs. Fly safely (and practice often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

 

Learning Tools for the Educator!

The best student you ever had as an instructor probably was the one who was “on fire” to learn.  That totally motivated learner is mostly effortless for an educator, like feeding a hungry child or watching a vigorous plant grow. You just provide the content and direction-some guidance and feedback-then stand back and watch in astonishment. I can think of five students I worked with to get a private in only 35 hours (part 141) and all turned into better pilots than students plodding along with 100 or more hours.

And similarly, our best personal learning experiences are when there is the correct combination of challenge, excitement, opportunity, and accomplishment. This magic zone of optimal challenge and experience in education creates an experience that is efficient and rewarding for both the educator and the learner. But unfortunately, this is not the usual experience in aviation; both educators and pilots-in-training comment and complain about friction and motivation problems. Every lesson seems like a struggle rather than a breeze. How can we create and retain this learning magic in every lesson?

The secret to motivation and achieving that “zone of proximal development” is the dynamic educator and learner relationship.  If either side is not alert, energized and motivated, the fire is quickly extinguished and the learning process becomes a chore. Most typically, too much control and micro-managing on the part of the educator is the problem. The CFI is most often guilty of excessive caution or lack of caring and involvement.

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.

Sometimes the reasons are valid since we have to ultimately create a safe environment for learning and instill an attitude of responsibility in the future pilot. But we usually overdo this end of the equation (especially initially) and put out that initial fire of motivation. The usual combination I see is a jazzed up, excited learner and a jaded, “not so fast sonny” educator with the brakes on. As soon as that first exciting “sell them” discovery flight is over, we educators clamp down with the “burden of responsibility” and excessive caution and correction.

So lately, I have been trying to very carefully retain and build that initial fire of excitement and discovery into every lesson, providing the fun and benefits to the greatest extent possible. That initial spark of excitement is too precious to waste. Flying can be intrinsically motivating through continuous accomplishment and mastery. I personally think we can instill caution and care as we proceed without diminishing the motivation (if we are careful).

As an educator, I work hard on my personal attitude and approach to avoid burn-out. Reading and podcasts- focusing on the craft of teaching- are very helpful (Try the cult of pedagogy?) We not only have to grow as pilots but also as educational professionals. SAFE has an extensive library of resources for educators. And consider our next SAFE CFI-PRO™ coming in June at Sporty’s for some collaborative fun and learning. Fly safe out there (and often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

“Ready For Anything?” – Training (Useful) Emergencies

Last spring a Citation 550, flown by an air ambulance service, lost both engines over the Atlantic and dead-sticked into Savanna, GA with no injuries or damage. Because everything worked perfectly, with lucky weather and masterful piloting, there was absolutely no coverage of this event in the news. This dual-engine flame-out, as dramatic as Sully and Skiles (but with more altitude and options) even landed a runway this time. Successful outcomes to bizarre emergencies like this clearly demonstrate the value of superior piloting skills but also the need to “stress test” our pilots during flight training to develop coping skills and resilience.  Too often in these situations, pilots succumb to our ancient biological “startle response” and cease to be proactive pilots and decision-makers. (GAJSC pdf) During flight training, we must build some mental toughness into our pilots to allow them to effectively cope with scary situations. Teaching the ability to “self-calm” and work the problem is essential. This training requires creativity and care on the part of the aviation educator. And just performing “standard ACS emergencies” by rote is certainly not enough.

GAJSC: Fatal general aviation accidents often result from inappropriate responses to unexpected events. Loss of aircraft control is a common factor in accidents that would have been survivable if control had been maintained throughout the emergency. In some cases pilot skill and knowledge have not been sufficient developed to prepare for the emergency but in others it would seem that an initial inappropriate reaction began a chain of events that led to disaster. Humans are subject to a “startle response” when they are faced with unexpected emergency situations and may delay action or initiate inappropriate action in response to the emergency. Training and preparation can help pilots to manage the startle response and effectively cope with unexpected events.

For both CFIs and pilots-in-training, there is a sense of what is “useful and fair” during pilot training. No one wants to add extraneous frills and cost to this project. But merely sticking with the ACS script and “teaching to the test” will never raise the pulse rate and build real resilience and emergency capability in our pilots. For future safety, educators need to present some realistic challenges (with a sense of urgency) to every pilot to develop coping skills.  When something alarming happens in flight, it is up to the PIC to resolve the emergency effectively and safely. We know from accident data that far too many pilots fail to respond correctly (if at all) in emergencies when simple actions would have improved the outcome.

Training surprises is tricky since we do not want to unnecessarily scare our pilots by presenting surprises too early in training (or without the proper preparation). Reading through historic occurrences such as Air Safety Institue’s “there I was” literature and Flying’s “I Learned About Flying” are good preparation once basic aircraft control is mastered and emergencies are on the menu. Your client’s buy-in for these new “rules of engagement” is essential to gain value from some “surprises.” Productive learning requires a discussion and mutual agreement that from now on “things will happen” and the pilot-in-training needs to handle them independently without instructor assistance; work the problem! Unfortunately, aeronautical decision-making is often making the best of a bad situation that we do not ask for. We play the cards we are dealt. Fly safely out there (and often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

 

Auto-Land is Here for GA – Ready?

Congratulations to Garmin on the announcement of Autonomí, their new emergency autoland technology. Though obviously a high-priced entry and not available to most, it is a smart and definitive aviation game-changer. And we all know it will very quickly evolve beyond the current emergency application to normal operations. Lots of comments in our popular FaceBook post had many people warning “watch out pilots” as our jobs may soon be totally automated. The current technology is only available in the Piper 600 turboprop and the Vision Jet (and for emergencies) but possible early application would be in any aircraft using the Garmin 3000 system and having autothrottles; Honda Jet, Embraer, and TBM Turboprop.

If you have not seen this technology, watch the video here. On command (or potentially with a metered inattention period) the Garmin unit takes full control and decides on the nearest suitable runway, alerts ATC and directs the plane to a safe landing; all while alerting the passengers to not touch the controls. This clever system crabs for a crosswind and switches to a slip during the roundout and touchdown.  Autonomí even applies the brakes on the runway and shuts down the engine for a safe deplaning!

Evolving beyond the safety application for nervous fliers, this technology automates one of the most challenging parts of flying for future GA fliers. This can potentially open up aviation to a whole new market of people who may be stymied by the personal challenges or physical dexterity required to land an aircraft reliably. As a lifetime CFI, I have close to 50,000 landings logged. Teaching safe and accurate landing is one of our primary challenges as CFIs. And we all know this subtle art can be more than some people can master reliably and consistently. Autoland has the potential to eliminate this barrier and open the doors to many more future pilots. Whether this is a good thing will be debated for years, but the change is now upon us. Technology is rapidly subsuming every human challenge in our amazing world of abundance and automation.

Personally, one of my favorite activities after a long charter trip is getting out my 7AC Champ and landing in a series of different nearby grass fields, each with its own challenges and rewards. Autoland is not for me (at least for normal operations), and usually I fight with our SOPs to get more hand flying time in the jet (that is why we fly?) Let me know what you think. Fly safely (and often).


SAFE CFI-PRO™ workshop  is open to every aviation educator at every level (even if you are working on your CFI?)

Join SAFE to support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).